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Half a Billion Years of History: The Natural Bridge at Rockbridge

The tiny 10-acre Pier Natural Bridge Park features a tunnel blasted in 1967 with an iconic footbridge through 500 million years of Driftless history. The park has also become a popular destination for picnicking, camping, weddings and kayaking.

“It is a curious thing to slowly discover that your landscape is beloved of other people. It is even more curious, and a little unsettling when you discover by stages that you as a native are not really part of the story and meaning they attach to that place.” — British author James Rebanks referring to his homeland, The Lake Country, in his book “The Shepherd’s Life.” 

By Marilyn Rinehart

My slow discovery of Rockbridge as a special place began when I would walk to our grandma’s house “down the rock” from our farm just west of the natural bridge. The pathways, shared with sheep for most of that mile, looked a lot like state parks we had visited on Sunday afternoons! Little did I realize then, as we crossed over the west branch of the Pine River over the natural bridge, that this is a rare geological formation, unique even in the phenomenon of the Driftless Area. We scurried like mountain goats down the Indian steps, a precarious set of footholds laid down by Native Americans long before Wisconsin was settled.

Now the tiny 10-acre Pier Natural Bridge Park surrounds a half-mile-long “finger” of sandstone topped by tall pines and covered with green shrubs. Over millions of years, erosion from two branches of the Pine River cut an opening, first a trickle and finally a navigable stream. Near the natural bridge is a tunnel, blasted in 1967, with a footbridge to what was once our cornfield and sheep pasture. Few people ever saw the natural bridge in the sunset on a fall afternoon as my father, Halsey Rinehart, and his ancestors did since their arrival in 1852. When a narrow highway bridge near his store was replaced with a much larger one in 1967, he worked with the Richland County Parks Committee to create the tunnel and footbridge as well as the stairway and picnic shelters that can be seen from Highway 80.

WHEN YOU GO

What: Rockbridge Geology and History Hikes. An hour-long hike through 500 million years. Learn about rock formations, human history and future development of the park and surrounding area.

When: 12 p.m. the last Sunday of the month or by appointment.

Where: Pier Natural Bridge Park, 17520 Hwy 80, Rockbridge, WI 53581.

Note: Due to bridge construction this summer, access and parking will be disrupted. For information, see Pine River Paddle and Tube on Facebook, or contact Marilyn Rinehart at (608) 347-5473 or mrinehart16820@gmail.com.

At the south end of the park the bluff stops suddenly, with an exclamation point! We always called it “The Little Rock,” but in actuality it was once probably a fairly large fragment of overhanging ledge that broke off and landed perpendicular to the land below. At first the opening between the little rock and the rest of the sandstone finger was a short cut to the Indian steps. The opening would have become a little wider with each generation to accommodate horses, cattle, carts, and finally, a county highway.

Halsey Carpenter Rinehart (1914-90) painted this depiction of a sawmill at the natural bridge in Rockbridge. Rinehart, a lifelong resident of Rockbridge, was a farmer, storyteller, historian and a self-taught artist. “He saw his art as a part of an exchange that involved sharing memories and stories with the viewer,” says his daughter Marilyn Rinehart. His paintings of Richland County are in Richland Center at Ocooch Books and Schmitt Woodland Hills, and copies of his drawings and stories are in The Depot-Richland Museum and Visitor Center.

These landmarks had become well known to white settlers in the 19th century. General Atkinson’s troops following Chief Blackhawk’s people in July 1832 called it “a most desperate place, that looks as though it would never be inhabited by civilized people.” With their horses and cannons, they would have traversed over thickly forested hills that were almost perpendicular, with undergrowth of vines and brambles, fording to their necks across creeks and rivers.

Ten years later a temporary mill was built, but the loggers declared once again that after the timber was stripped the land would be left to the Indians. Twenty years later Rockbridge was a thriving village with a more permanent mill, a general store and post office, a school and several homes. The members of the Haseltine family who first settled in Rockbridge later chose the site of Richland Center as the more central location in the county for government and commerce. Now Rockbridge is a sleepy village, with its only business, The Natural Bridge Store, offering great ice cream cones, picnic supplies and a quirky mix of local products.

The park is now a favorite place for many people — a picnic area with playground equipment, a primitive campsite, a photo opportunity, a wedding venue, and a kayak landing. Most of us will never know what it has meant to hundreds of people over the years. A walk through the tunnel takes you 500 million years back to when these same sand rocks were lain down layer by layer in almost lifeless seas. A steep climb to the top gives you a bird’s eye view of the Pine River and the village. Follow the path “down the rock” to the south, as my sisters and I did, for another viewpoint. Skip the Indian steps — too risky — and return down four flights of stairs to the parking area. On the last Sunday of every month, or by appointment, I meet people near the historical markers to take a close look at the evidence of these spectacular geological formations and to tell whatever stories come to mind!

James Rebanks says it best: “Let no one say that the past is dead. The past is all about us and within. Haunted by tribal memories, I know this little now, this accidental present, is not all of me, whose long making is so much of the past.” I look forward to sharing this experience.

Marilyn Rinehart is a descendant of some of the original Rockbridge settlers.  After a career in nursing education, she remains active in health and education efforts in Richland County. She and her husband have retired on a portion of the family farm near the natural bridge. She carries on the family tradition of story-telling and a deep respect for the land.

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